Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Who will be the genealogy teachers?

Genealogical Society of Utah. Lessons in Genealogy. Salt Lake City, Utah: The Genealogical Society of Utah, 1915.
Back in 1915 and before, genealogy was considered something that needed to be taught. The goals of this teaching included the concept that anyone approaching the subject needed to acquire sufficient skill to do the work. Those skills, what we would call methodology, were set out in detail in a series of lessons. As far as I can determine, this small book published by the Genealogical Society of Utah, the predecessor of today's FamilySearch International, was the first such attempt at preparing a series of lessons on genealogical methodology.

Today, we have a plethora of such teaching materials available. There are whole websites dedicated to teaching the basics of genealogical methodology and the "skills" necessary for conducting accurate and consistent research. There are certificate and degree programs available involving university level instruction. I personally obtained a large part of my initial formal training in genealogy by taking many university level classes from Brigham Young University's Independent Study Department for five years on genealogical subjects.

However, notwithstanding the availability of very detailed and high level genealogical instruction, it is currently commonly believed that "anyone" can do their "genealogy" without any training or instruction. Of course, the methodology for genealogy has changed since 1915, but this core concepts and the need for careful and skillful research and accuracy in recording the information has not changed.

It is true, that good genealogical work can be done by nearly anyone willing to spend the time and the effort needed to learn those skills and apply the best methodological practices, but learning those skills and methods does take time and effort. Where the major division in appreciating the need for training comes is between those who know about the need and those who apparently consider training unnecessary. In the United States, this has taken the form of those who advocate doing your "family history" as something entirely different than genealogy as it has been taught and practiced for more than a hundred years.

I frequently write about the impact of technology on genealogical methodology, but I do not ever want to imply that the basic need for accuracy, consistency and reliability have in any way been abandoned. If fact, because of the proliferation of shoddy, inaccurate and poorly documented, online family trees, the need for training and consistent methodology are needed more than ever.

Today, we need to recognize that training in the skills needed for genealogical research are even more important today than they were back in the early 1900s. As Groucho Marx is attributed in saying, "You can lead a horse to water, but if you can get him to float on his back then you've got something." I can paraphrase this by saying, you can encourage people to do their genealogy, but if you teach them how to do it, then you've got something.

To some of us, it would seem that we are awash in genealogical instruction. But even with the easy availability of training, it is interesting how some still maintain that all this available training is not necessary or even desirable. Yes, you do need at least some basic skills to do adequate genealogical research and classes, books and webinars are available to learn those skills and, by the way, many of those classes, books and webinars are free or modestly priced.

I am not advocating that genealogy become a closed and supervised activity like medicine or law, but I am pointing out that ducking the issue of training does nothing to improve the morass of mediocrity that now exists online under the guise of family tree information.

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